Friday 28 February 2020

Writers’ Questions: How do I find (or make) the time to write?

In my Writers’ Questions series I’ve been tackling the craft and business of writing, including whether or not to outline, finding a literary agent and showing vs. telling. Today, we’re taking a look at a more logistical and psychological question, and one lots of people ask me: just how does anyone have the time to write?

Let’s start with the obvious point. People’s lives are very different and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to giving yourself the time to write. Some people put in long hours at a day job, while others don’t have to work, or are retired. Many writers have responsibilities at home—partners to spend time with, children to raise, parents to care for. 

Broadly speaking, however, there seem to me to be two buckets of ideas if you’re someone who wants to spend more time on your writing: there is the time we find and the time we make. I don’t know what your circumstances are, but maybe some of these tips will spark some inspiration.

Finding Time

Is there time that you’re currently spending idly? Or time you’re dedicating to an activity that’s non-crucial to your life and not as important to you as your writing? Consider reallocating it.

Maybe you’re playing a game on your phone when you’re commuting. You could be writing then in the notes section of your phone. Sometimes it’s important to relax, but, ask yourself, what is going to make you feel better on a Thursday night? Another episode of a TV show or writing a few hundred words?

Personally, I find travel to be a wonderful opportunity to discover time. My self-imposed ‘rule’ on flights is that I only ever sleep or write (and read when laptops must be stowed for take-off and landing). That means no movies and no games (wine is ok though, thanks to multitasking!). Are you on a business trip? Treat your hotel room like a writer’s room once your meetings are done. Maybe take the slow train, not an express, if the extra time in transit will be time well spent.

Sometimes finding time will involve hard choices. I frequently find myself feeling guilty about the path not taken. If I’m working out in the morning, I feel I should be writing. But if I’m snuggled in bed with my laptop, shouldn’t I be at the gym? It’s not easy to go through a process of ruthless prioritisation. But maybe asking yourself to make these binary choices will allow you to assess how important your writing is to you really.

Making Time

My second bucket of ideas is more about making time i.e. making changes to your lifestyle to carve out time for your creative process.

This could be a one off or an occasional thing, like treating yourself to a writing retreat, at home or away. Maybe you can afford to pay for an organised retreat with other writers. Or perhaps your retreat is simply a weekend without plans, or kids, or spouse.

But making time could also involve something more drastic and ongoing. A standing ‘date’ with yourself on certain days or evenings, which your friends and family know is sacred. A change to your working hours at your other job. Or a minimum number of hours a day you will dedicate to writing. Maybe you need to renegotiate time management with your partner, or others in your circle, to live the life you want to.

I actually schedule meetings with my characters on my digital calendar (a little strange I know!) to trick my brain into viewing my commitment to writing as immovable as my other social engagements. The even stranger thing? It works.

Only you can look at your own life and assess: what time can I find and what time can I make? And so I would caution against comparison with other writers. It doesn’t matter if you’re the fastest or the steadiest as long as you get what you want to achieve done. Find and make the time and I promise that every minute you spend writing and every word you type will add up, bringing you closer to your goals.

Do you have any other questions for me to address as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And if you want to learn more about my forthcoming novel, Bronte’s Mistress, check out this link or sign up for my newsletter below.

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Sunday 23 February 2020

Neo-Victorian Voices: Westering Women, Sandra Dallas (2020)

In the last three posts in my Neo-Victorian Voices series, on novels set in the nineteenth century, but written in the twenty-first, we’ve returned to Jane Austen’s English countryside, entered the cellar of a depraved London taxidermist, and revisited Charles Dickens’s ever-popular A Christmas Carol.

This week, we’re in 1850s America, as, in Westering Women (2020), Sandra Dallas imagines the journey of forty women “of high moral character”, who set out on a journey from Chicago to California in search of a better life. All are ostensibly risking the perilous Overland Trail to find husbands among the gold seekers, but many are running away from the past—abusive men, prostitution, even possible murder convictions.

Westering Women (2020)
The main character Maggie is a mother, who’s been battered by her husband and needs to get as far from Chicago as she can. She is also a dressmaker and I enjoyed how her sewing skills contributed to the story and how her eye for clothing and materials gave us a specific lens on the cities and settlements the women pass through.

Dallas’s research shines through in her depiction of the trail, the physical toll it takes on the women and the changing landscapes and climates they travel through. With a large cast and epic journey to cover, she does a great job in showing the transformative effect of this adventure on the women, in terms of their sense of self worth, the physical objects they value and their relationships with each other. This is a novel about womanhood, sisterhood, motherhood and friendship, where men act at worst as the agents of evil and at best as slightly weak supporting characters.

Sandra Dallas (1939- )
Dallas kept me guessing about who would make it to the journey’s end (spoiler alert: it’s not all of them) and ratcheted up the tension, as the weather, Native American warriors, pursuing forces from back home and men in the wagon train’s midst threaten the group’s safety.

I’d recommend the novel to anyone interested in learning about this period of American history and the mass migration of many (including women and families) under such trying circumstances. The book is focused on the journey itself rather than on California and those panning for gold there, which makes the ending feel a little rushed, but it’s nice to be given space to imagine the surviving women’s lives there.

The novel also walks an interesting line, in being at times heart-warming with a strong sense of inclusive and forgiving Christian morality, while at others dealing with brutal sexual and physical violence. The treatment of, and attitudes towards, black and Native American characters is in line with historical realities, which can also make for emotionally difficult reading. This isn’t escapist historical fiction that will leave you longing for a romantic past. I for one will feel pretty grateful the next time I hop on a quick six-hour flight to California!

Do you have any recommendations for novels I should read next in my Neo-Victorian Voices series? If so, let me know—here, on Facebook, via Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

And did you know it’s now less than six months until the release of my novel, Bronte’s Mistress? Check out the pre-order details here, or sign up for my monthly newsletter below!

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Wednesday 5 February 2020

Going back in time in NYC: recent events for Brontë and Austen lovers

New York City is known for being obsessed with the now. Time, it is said, moves faster here, as do the city’s inhabitants who race through the streets—to the next train, the next reservation, the next meeting. Because of this, it’s always a particular delight for me to discover (sometimes eccentric) events created by and for other history lovers, offering a moment to pause and dwell on the past, in the city that never sleeps.

In the last few weeks I’ve attended two of these. These were focused, not just on history, but on the Brontës and Jane Austen, which seemed timely given my recent post on forthcoming novels inspired by Austen and the forthcoming publication of my own novel—Brontë’s Mistress.

First up was a play—Anne Brontë: A Woman of Courage. Presented by the American Chapter of the Brontë Society in a co-production with KALIDASCOPES Media & Vision, this ran for two nights at Jefferson Market Library.

The production was a celebration of Anne Brontë, the youngest and most frequently forgotten Brontë sister, on the occasion of her bicentenary. It wove together excerpts from her novels, letters and poetry, as well as other biographical material related to the nineteenth century’s most famous literary family.

With minimal props and costuming, the four actors (Katrina Michaels, Alida Rose Delaney, Miriam Canfield and Marshall Taylor Thurman) did a great job depicting multiple characters and capturing the emotional intensity of Anne’s writing. The overall plot might have been hard to follow for those less familiar with Brontë lore, but, even taken in isolation, the scenes were an engaging sampling of Anne’s life and work.

Particularly successful were the dramatizations of key scenes from Anne’s 1848 The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the novel so shocking that her sister Charlotte apologised for its existence in her biographical notice about the deceased Emily and Anne in 1850:

The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer's nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid.”

For example, Anne’s key sense of injustice in the exchange between Helen and Gilbert Markham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is still resonant in 2020, two hundred years on from her birth, even if the way she couches her moral argument in religious language may be alien and off-putting to twenty-first century audiences.

On a selfish note, I would have loved a deeper exploration of Anne’s relationship with her brother Branwell and her time working along with him at Thorp Green Hall—the focus of my novel. But here, as in other interpretations of the Brontës’ lives, more stage time was given to exploring Anne’s first stint as a governess (as depicted at least semi-autobiographically in the first half of her 1847 Agnes Grey) and the play’s creators chose to foreground the relationship between the three sisters, leaving Branwell in the shadows.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the show and was delighted that celebrations of Anne’s life have made it across the Atlantic.

Second, last weekend I attended a marathon reading of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, at the King Manor Museum in Queens. This fascinating historic house was home to Rufus King, American Founding Father and outspoken abolitionist. Built in the 1750s, the museum was the perfect setting for the event, as attendees, many of them in period costume, took it in turns to read chapters from Volume I of Austen’s beloved 1818 work aloud.

The Secret Victorianist joins other Janeites at the Queens museum
I’m not much of a crafter, but those more talented than me stitched clothes, knitted or did embroidery while listening to the novel, making me feel (in spite of the electric light and heating) that I’d truly stepped back in time.

It was a real thrill to experience Jane Austen’s work as many of her first readers would have and something of a digital detox to spend five hours simply listening and occupying your hands (I amused myself with a colouring book for the first time in two decades). This Saturday, the museum is hosting a reading of Volume II. I won’t be able to attend, but, if you’re a Janeite in NYC, you might consider going along—even if just for a portion of the five hours.

In what’s shaping up to be a pretty crazy debut year (we’re now less than six months from the release of Brontë’s Mistress!), both these events were a great way for me to step back and connect with other lovers of the nineteenth century and I hope I’ll be able to continue to do this (and write about my adventures on this blog). Next up, I’ll be attending another play—Cheer from Chawton: A Jane Austen Family Theatrical at the 14th Street Y.

If you know of any other New York events that might be of interest to me, please get in touch—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. Pre-order information for Brontë’s Mistress can be found here, and, if you want monthly updates on its release straight to your email inbox, sign up for my author newsletter below.

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